Thursday, February 14, 2019

Top 20 Best Cinematography Oscar Winners

On Monday, the Academy Awards confirmed what many of us had feared: During the 91st Oscars broadcast, four awards will be given out during commercial breaks, and the winners’ speeches will air sometime later in the show. For die-hard Oscar fans, this decision is complete and utter bullshit. The Academy has made some painfully dumb decisions this year, but I haven’t really been bothered by most of them. No host, fine. Three hour run time, go for it. Not performing each Best Song nominee, doesn’t seem very fair, but okay (this decision has been reversed). Creating a Most Popular Film category, ha, do your thing (this decision has been reversed).

But deciding to eliminate Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Live Action Short, and Best Makeup and Hairstyling from the live broadcast is absurd. If the Academy is hell bent on keeping the show under three hours, cut the lame montages (In Memoriam can stay), cut the poorly written banter between awards presenters, cut the pizza/candy/strangers-at-the-awards bits – cut the fat, and let all winners have their moment.

In light of this news, I’ve decided to create a post detailing my favorite Oscars for Best Cinematography. These are just my personal favorites, as there are a lot of great films to choose from. This post is my way of calling bullshit on the Academy’s nonsense, while also highlighting some of the finest cinematography captured on film.

Rebecca (1940)
Shot by George Barnes
George Barnes was nominated for this award eight times, but only won for Rebecca. Fitting, as the film’s black and white photography helps put us in Mrs. de Winter’s (Joan Fontaine) terrified mindset. The cinematography feels like a controlled fever dream, which was rarely recognized, especially in 1940, so profoundly.

Black Narcissus (1947)
Shot by Jack Cardiff
There is a beautiful, revelatory, and at-times terrifying vision on display throughout Black Narcissus. This is one of the great Technicolor dreams of early cinema, and I’m so glad Cardiff won his only Oscar for it. Though the fact that he wasn’t nominated the following year for Red Shoes is baffling.

The Third Man (1950)
Shot by Robert Krasker
The shadows, the light, the rain-soaked streets and never-ending tunnels. The Third Man is one of the all time great achievements in cinematography. I still have fun watching this movie and trying to figure out how Krasker pulled it all off.

A Place in the Sun (1951)
Shot by William C. Mellor
Director George Stevens was given the option to shoot A Place in the Sun in Technicolor, but wisely chose black and white to enhance the mood and eliminate the inherent beauty of color. This film (this great, great film) is all about the dichotomy of love, and the contrast of Mellor’s photography so perfectly captures the inner turmoil of George Eastman (Montgomery Clift).

On the Waterfront (1954)
Shot by Boris Kaufman
Terry Malloy’s (Marlon Brando) final walk of determination, which is captured largely from Terry’s staggering, unfocused point of view, is reason enough to put On the Waterfront on this list. That sequence changed cinematography.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Shot by Freddie Young
In terms of cinematography, I tend to favor more intimate and experimental styles than vast visual landscapes, but the visual feat of Lawrence of Arabia cannot be ignored. This is a huge movie with a massive scope, and Freddie Young honors that beautifully.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
Shot by Haskell Wexler
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is such a nasty marvel of a film, and Haskell Wexler certainly contributes to that. His dark imagery traps us into this night from hell, resulting in stunning black and white photography. In fact, black and white was on its way out in 1966, but Wexler certainly made the case of it here.

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Shot by Burnett Guffey
Can a single scene merit an Oscar? You’re damn right it can. The killing of Bonnie and Clyde is one of the best-photographed scenes ever captured on film. Nothing like that had been done in American film before; it was brutal, shocking, and completely worthy of awards.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Shot by Conrad L. Hall
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a visual feast. Various scenes are captured in deep sepia, muted colors, and gorgeous shadows, while the chase sequences remain intensely thrilling. I never tire of watching the world through Conrad L. Hall’s lens.

Cries and Whispers (1972) and Fanny and Alexander (1982)
Shot by Sven Nykvist
Sven Nykvist remains my favorite cinematographer, and Cries and Whispers and Fanny and Alexander are two of his finest achievements. One does not forget the blood-color rooms of Cries and Whispers, or the candle-lit bliss (and terrifying cold hues) of Fanny and Alexander. These films are as good as cinematography gets.

Barry Lyndon (1975)
Shot by John Alcott
Speaking of candles, it’s remarkable what John Alcott was able to achieve in certain low-light sequences in Barry Lyndon. And those scenes, on top of the film’s precise and remarkable action set pieces, make Barry Lyndon one of the great visual wonders of Stanley Kubrick’s filmography.

Days of Heaven (1978)
Shot by Néstor Almendros (and Haskell Wexler)
Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven showcases some game-changing cinematography, but, sadly, this Oscar win was met with a bit of controversy. Because the production of Days of Heaven ran so long, Néstor Almendros had to drop out of shooting halfway through to shoot François Truffaut’s The Man Who Loved Women. Haskell Wexler was brought on to finish Days of Heaven, and his work ultimately occupied half of the photography in the film. But due to strict guild rules, Almendros was the only credited cinematographer on the movie. The Oscar should have gone to them both, as the film’s sherbet-soaked vision remains a wonder to behold. (Also, it’s kind of shocking that no Terrence Malick film has won Best Cinematography since.)

Apocalypse Now (1979)
Shot by Vittorio Storaro
When speaking about Apocalypse Now, director Francis Ford Coppola famously said that, “My film is not a movie; it’s not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam.” Vittorio Storaro’s uncompromising photography helps back that statement up, as Apocalypse Now captures the horror of the Vietnam War with such rich textures and astonishing set pieces.

JFK (1991)
Shot by Robert Richardson
I love when straight-dramas win Best Cinematography. Films that contain no action scenes, massive landscapes, or plentiful special effects. Don’t get me wrong, JFK is a huge film, but it’s a visually grounded thriller throughout.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Shot by Janusz Kaminski
The easiest thing Steven Spielberg and Janusz Kaminski could’ve done during the D-Day sequence was pull out; give us an aerial shot of the carnage so we could fully see what was going on. Instead, they keep us on the ground, amidst the chaos. It feels like we’re right there, fighting for our lives. This sequence will be studied and discussed or decades to come.

Road to Perdition (2002)
Shot by Conrad L. Hall
This was an insanely competitive year for Best Cinematography. Dion Beebe (Chicago), Edward Lachman (Far from Heaven), Michael Ballhaus (Gangs of New York), and Paweł Edelman (The Pianist) all could’ve won, but I love that the award went to Conrad L. Hall, who died a little more than two months before this Oscar ceremony. The Academy doesn’t award posthumous Oscars often, but this was incredibly well earned, as Road to Perdition not only looks great, but it is a fitting way to honor a passing legend.

There Will Be Blood (2007)
Shot by Robert Elswitt
This was another very completive year for Best Cinematography. Roger Deakins (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and No Country for Old Men), Seamus McGarvey (Atonement), and Janusz Kaminski (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) all deserved to win, but I’m so happy the Academy chose Elswitt for his breathtaking photography of There Will Be Blood. It’s still hard to believe that this is Elswitt’s only Oscar win.

Inception (2010)
Shot by Wally Pfister
Christopher Nolan’s insistence on using practical effects when possible, as opposed to relying on computer graphics, paid off to great effect in Inception. Wally Pfister was able to present each layer of the film’s dream world with utter distinction. And the movie’s gravity-bending hotel hallway fight remains one of the crowning photographic achievements of this decade.

Gravity (2013) and Birdman (2014) and The Revenant (2015)
Shot by Emmanuel Lubezki
When Amy Adams and Bill Murray announced that Gravity had won the 2013 Best Cinematography Oscar, movie buffs let out a huge sigh of relief. Chivo finally had his Oscar. Then, as if making up for lost time, he won the next two Oscars in this category, for his equally thrilling work in Birdman and The Revenant. I can’t pick just one, because I simply love them all. Can you blame me?

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Shot by Roger Deakins
Roger Deakins should’ve won a few times before this, but all’s well the ends well. It’s still so damn cool that he won his first Oscar for the experimental, trippy vision of Blade Runner 2049. Now, just imagine if this ridiculous Academy rule was in effect last year. We would’ve been robbed of seeing one of the greatest cinematographers of all time winning his first Academy Award. And although I think Alfonso Cuarón will win this award this year (as well as awards for Best Foreign Film, Best Director, and potentially Best Picture), winners of Oscars deserve their moment on the stage. Live, and in living color.


  1. Barry Lyndon has, in my opinion, the best cinematography of any film I've seen. It's use of low light (that candle lit conversation is just brilliant) as well as it's sheer love of landscape makes it such a marvelously layered work. But this whole list is rather divine!

    1. Thanks Drew! I look at Barry Lyndon and just marvel. I cannot imagine how long it took Kubrick to set those shots up, and then make everything within the shot look absolutely perfect. That is one damn fine film, and certainly one of the best looking of all time.

  2. Of the ones I've seen, aside from Gravity and The Revenant, I can't argue. I just think Deakins should've won those years for Prisoners and Sicario and I'm forever bitter about it. lol

    I'm glad to see Inception here. For a film that was pretty popular and fairly recent, I still feel like it doesn't get talked about enough for its achievements.

    1. Oh, I'm Team Deakins all the way, but I do love Chivo. Those were tough years for sure. And I couldn't agree more about Inception. A new film, sure, but definitely one with a vision and style worth talking about.

  3. Of the films in the list that I haven't seen in Rebecca, A Place in the Sun, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as I hope to see them soon. The rest of that list, who can argue with these choices?

    Once I saw Black Narcissus in your list, oh child... you gave me an orgasm. I fucking love that shot and that film.

    And here is something that is interesting. John Bailey who is the Academy president was Almendros' main camera operator during the production of Days of Heaven but also had to leave for another project. What the fuck is he thinking? I think they're all pressured by ABC to make it more watchable for ratings. The ratings... They think 3 hours is long?

    I dare them to watch an entire episode of WWE Monday Night RAW. That is 3 hours of bullshit that is making wrestling fans wanting to kill themselves right now and I haven't watched an entire episode of that shit for nearly 5 years now. I only read the reports and listen to Solomonster who had to endure that shit every Monday.

    1. Totally agree about WWE Raw. I haven't watched a full episode in eight years. Talent lacks charisma, feuds lack any 'substance', and there's nothing going on in the first hour, let alone three.

    2. Glad to see someone here who knows what I'm talking about when it comes to RAW. I heard it is unwatchable. OK, for anyone not well-versed in wrestling.... or as WWE likes to call it.... "sports entertainment" (*gags*) Here is Jason Solomon aka the Solomonster review the now-infamous November 26, 2018 episode of WWE Monday Night RAW:

      I'm surprised no one has died watching an episode of that show yet some said wrestling did die that day in Milwaukee.

    3. So much gold here. First off, my friend, please watch A Place in the Sun as soon as you can, because that is an absolute gem. I cannot believe Stevens was able to make it in 1951. It deals with some heavy topics, and Clift is stunning in it.

      I didn't know that about Bailey! Love that kind of stuff. And thank god he reversed the awful decision to cut certain speeches.

      Also, my best friend is a wrestling fanatic, and I've heard him say things that both of you are saying here. He's often quite upset about it.

    4. We wrestling fans have become numb to what WWE has been doing and whatever good they'll do, they fuck it up immediately. It's always one step forward and two steps back. Fortunately, there's New Japan Pro Wrestling that keeps things exciting despite the fact they lost some of their performers due to business reasons.

      And then there's All Elite Wrestling which is still trying to get a TV deal yet it's already creating a lot of buzz. Personally, I just hope they succeed and put Meekmahan, his dufus son-in-law, stunt-crazed son, his brown-nosing wife at Fuckhead's administration, and his stupid cunt of a daughter out of business.

  4. I just cant even with them. I would Imagine this is all just a shameless ploy to get attention and they will back out from it, but just announcing this crap is insulting. I really hope they get slaughtered in ratings and that dumbass they call their president gets replaced.

    I really need to see Rebecca, some of my fav movies are apparantly inspired by it

    1. I think you were right! They're just kicking up a fuss, hoping to get press from it. They have made some truly baffling decisions this year, and then backed away from most of them. So, so strange.

      And I think you would love Rebecca!

  5. I really hope, knowing that they've already gone back on other decisions, that they turn this around and feature all the categories. This post is a perfect way to highlight their terrible decision!

    1. Thanks Allie! I'm so happy they went back on this decision too. I assumed they would, but still, what a painfully dumb decision in the first place.

  6. Happy to see that the Oscars reversed this decision too. Great list! Inception definitely doesn't get talked about enough. Neither does Gravity. The script could've used some buffing up, but the effects and cinematography is impressive.

    1. Hell yeah - I'm happy they did too! And I agree, say what you will about Gravity's script, but that movie looks remarkable.

  7. Great post! I'm torn between Fanny and Alexander and Days of Heaven myself, but some undeniably masterful work in them all. And I hope you've seen that they have since reversed this decision too!

    1. Thanks Dave! I'm so happy they reversed this decision. And I'm glad you appreciate the look of both of those films. Two of my all time favorite looking movies.

  8. Excellent choices, Alex, but in my mind you missed a foundational one (and the very first Oscar recipient): Sunrise. Every single frame of that film is imbued with feeling — those tracking shots and the high-contrast lighting and the use of forced perspective. Murnau and his DPs (Charles Rosher and Karl Struss) were operating at a level seldom found in films of the era... or today for that matter. They took some of the techniques of German expressionism and applied it to an earthy melodrama. And they weren't simply trying to show off (although that was probably part of it). Their technique feels organic to the humanist story they're trying to tell.

    Apologies for the tangent. I really, really love Sunrise.

    BTW: Nestor Almendros, of Days of Thunder, wrote about Sunrise in 1984. It's quite a lengthy tribute but well worth the read:

    1. And that would be Days of Heaven, not the Tom Cruise Nascar movie. ;-)

    2. No apologies necessary - that is a great call! I really need to see Sunrise again. Had I watched it recently, I'm sure it would've made my list. That was a really interesting article, thanks for linking to it. And now I'm laughing at the idea of Nestor Almendros actually writing about Days of Thunder :)

  9. Great post. Cinematography is something I adore and look out for in movies. Ever since studying film in college and even before that, the way a movie shot really influenced me.

    1. Thanks! Cinematography is definitely an aspect of movies I latch onto pretty heavily. I just adore everything about a well composed and executed shot.

  10. Adored this post. Really glad the backlash worked and the tech artists were recognized. From the ones you've chosen I'm particularly fond of Lubezki's work (genius), Néstor Almendros on Days of Heaven was like Edward Hopper mixed with Andrew Wyeth (stunning), Boris Kaufman's work plus Brando was iconic, and Vittorio Storaro is another one of my all-time favorites. I had the priviledge of listening to him describing his work with Coppola because he did a lectura in Alicante where I was studying screenwriting.

    Watching your list I remembered that some of my favorite DP have never won an Oscar, and some of them never were nominated like Robby Müller or Peter Deming, Jordan Cronenweth who should have won for Blade Runner (the original one, as well-deserved as Roger Deakins actual win), or Slawomir Idziak.

    Btw I just followed you on twitter. I’m Valentina over there ‘cause my full name is Maria Valentina but for work reasons I’m going with the second name now.

    1. Thanks so much! It really is crazy how many amazing DPs never won an Oscar. When looking over the full list of winners, I was struck by how many of the movies are kind of bland visually. But oh well. And thanks so much for the follow!